How to Tell a Cult From a Genuine Church

I've just been watching 4 Corners on ABC tonight. The programme was an investigation into a church called Brisbane Christian Fellowship and its sister churches Melbourne Christian Fellowship, Adelaide Christian Fellowship, Sydney Christian Fellowship and several others.

I hasten to point out that having the words Christian Fellowship in a church name does not mean it is related to this lot- this was also pointed out in the programme. To make matters more confusing, they interviewed a couple of former members who are now pastors of a Sydney-based group called New Life Church which we are also not related to in any way,

The BCF and its affiliates seem to be a Brethren sect with charismatic practices. They are led by elders, but the head of it all is a man named Victor Hall.

As I watched the programme, and saw people giving accounts of how their lives were wrecked by this church, I was trying to work out what was bad about it and why New Life (and indeed most of the churches I know of) is different to these other groups.

The problem is that the words they use are very similar to the words we use. They believe in tithing and so do we. They believe in personal holiness and so do we. They believe in the word of God, salvation, heaven, the return of Jesus- and so do we. They believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, in visions of Jesus, prophetic words and in small groups- and so do we.

So what is different? What is it that makes one church dysfunctional and toxic, while another that seems to preach the same message and have similar structures is healthy and life-giving.

Jesus said "You will know them by their fruits." But I guess that if you're in the middle of such a group then it's too late to be looking for fruit.

Here are some things that I thought of in the course of the programme that help to distinguish a healthy church from an unhealthy group.

1. Freedom.

The people in BCF and its affiliates are not free to leave. There were several descriptions given of how a person was excommunicated and this would effectively cut them off from their family. People knew that if they left it may mean not seeing very close friends or their husband or children again.

At New Life we try to remain friends with people who leave- it's not always possible and sometimes our personal feelings of hurt make it hard, but people are free to leave.

2. Family.

Any group that divides families is unhealthy. Playing family members against one another, or dividing people is not what Jesus wants from us. God ordains families and we need to help families to stay close. Having said that, when violence or emotional abuse happens in families, it's appropriate for people to leave-- but it has to be their choice to leave or to stay.

3. Control.

Whenever anybody tries to manipulate what people do or think or say then that is unhealthy. Pastoral control of individuals- determining what job a person should take, where they should live, who they should marry etc.- is wrong.

Leadership is about enabling people to make good decisions not making the decisions for them.

I don't want to tell people which car to buy or who to marry. I've got enough problems running my own life (under God) without having to run everybody else's as well!

We allow people to make up their own minds about doctrines and many other issues. I don't run a tight line on want may be preached in our church- if it's in the bible and agrees with the broad thrust of normal christian faith then that's fine. People are free to express ideas even when I disagree.

There is a real issue here also about prophetic guidance where we believe that God is saying something about somebody else. In the programme one of the leaders had used information about somebody gained from their brother to give a "word from the Lord" about that person. It's one thing to genuinely believe you are hearing the Holy Spirit in order to help someone, quite another to claim that is happening when the information comes from another source.

4. Attitude to other churches.

It is quite common for cultic groups to claim all the other churches are completely wrong and are all going to hell and only one group will be saved. It is OK to disagree with other churches about points of doctrine or practice, but we should be honouring to them at the same time. It is silly for any group to claim to have all the truth and that all other groups are doomed. I always try to work with other pastors, to encourage them and be friendly to them.

5. Connection with the community

Churches exist for one main reason- to equip disciples to live for Jesus in the world. That means connecting with the community and not just being withdrawn from the world. It means loving people who are outside the church, even those who are not yet saved. It means being gracious towards our neighbours and the people who serve us in shops.

It means showing compassion to those who are hurting and giving words to express the love of God along with actions. It means being a "normal" human being, hopefully living faithfully to Jesus in the trials of every day life, and radiating that beautiful love of God.

6. Grace.

Cults tend to be big on discipline and obedience. True churches tend to be big on grace, forgiveness and reconciliation. Cults want conformity but Jesus wants us to grow into His image. What happens when church members don't "make the grade" for one reason or another? Do we humiliate, punish and pummel them into submission? Or do we continue to love them, forgive them and let grace do its work of restoration?

7. Teaching.

A couple of people on the programme said that they could never understand the teaching. It seemed good at the time but really didn't make much sense. They would put this down to their own inadequacy and assumed that as they grew in their understanding these things would become clear to them. Obviously there are times when preachers miss the mark in communicating (for me it's usually for about half an hour from 11 am on Sunday mornings!), and for some of us it is hard to understand the message. Preaching and teaching are supposed to bring illumination to the Bible, inspiration to live lives more fully in tune with God's will and encouragement to face the battle of living holy lives in a fallen world. That means that the teaching has to make sense and be applicable to life.

Cults often use the high falluting, esoteric teaching that sounds very profound but is actually meaningless, in order to keep people in subjection- people feel inferior because they can't grasp truth that seems like it should be self-evident.
I don't pretend to have it all together as a pastor, but I can see that our church is healthy and life-giving. We might be a close knit community but we are also outward-looking and freedom-giving.

The difference between a "good" church and a "bad" one is not necessarily in the words they use or the outward appearance. We need to look closely to see whether a particular group is really honouring God or just supporting the ambitions of a control-freak.